Joe Magarac is made of solid steel, but today his heart is a magnet. It keeps pulling him homeward. He’s sure of it: his heart is pumping carbonate and iron-oxide into his bloodstream, drawing him back to the heaps of ore smelting in the blast furnaces.
Joe knows you can’t cheat science. Natural laws are tighter nooses than fate. So he stands up, slow-sure like always, and then starts walking. He’s careful not to trample any cars or people or pets. He puts his feet down in the middle of the side roads, then the dirt roads, and he keeps himself to himself until he gets to the place he was made.
When he strolls into town, he wonders if he’s made a wrong turn. Read the wrong sign. Nobody greets him; nobody even notices him. There isn’t anybody around to notice. He walks through silent streets lined with empty houses and shattered windows and rusted cars, heaped-up tires half-submerged in pools of sludge and rainwater. Waste grows like gardens on the lawns: Pepsi cans stuffed with syringes, hamburger wrappers hugging plastic diapers. Even the rails are forgotten, concrete girders and beams piled neatly against them, as if something was about to be built when progress stopped. When numbers slipped from the clock, scattered like breadcrumbs on the tracks.
Joe walks through this deathbed town until he arrives at the steel mill. He expects the flames will start spilling out soon, in white and orange streams so lovely you want to lick them up, feel the burn on your tongue and in your throat, the white heat at the heart of purpose. But the place is dark and open, the walls crumbled in most places. Someone has sprayed “Asshole,” bright purple block letters on the bricks; someone has left a filthy blanket and a McDonald’s coffee cup next to a cold, empty furnace. Joe Magarac is ten feet tall and made of steel but like all things, he can be destroyed by time. His heart is no longer a magnet. His heart is a black, bloody sore.
He rose out of an ore mine to work alongside the steelworkers. He pushed time hard-24 hours a day, 365 days a year. When the men wanted a break, they’d whistle to Joe, and he’d work fifty times as hard and fast to move those clock hands forward. For a hundred years he’d hammered steel into every shape in the world. The Panama Canal’s 110-foot lock gates. The seventy ton axle for the Chicago World’s Fair Ferris wheel. Parts of famous skyscrapers. Blocks and blocks and blocks of steel, casting and roughing-rolling and billet-rolling-he’d done it all. Never stopped working until maybe thirty-odd years ago, when he decided to take his first break.
He just needed a long rest. Even steel sags. But he always meant to come back. He always meant to save them from the worst of the work, from the high heat and hammering. He knew they needed him; he just didn’t know how bad it would get, so quickly. When he finally noticed the slow truth driving through his steel veins, felt the pull home in the long-distance sorrow of the people, he got the kinks out of his joints and started the long walk back.
Now he looks around, at an ugly panorama of what-used-to-be-good-and-plain-and-true. This place is a catastrophe, he thinks. This place is a rusty steel shaft jammed through the eye. He pivots slowly, deliberately, starts his heavy walk back the way he came in search of all the people. He drags along for years and miles, looks in windows and under bridges, in cars and over stadiums, but his people stay stubbornly missing. Finally he comes to a wide place outside a city, and there-there they are. He waves to them. Follows them down inside a tunnel of longing and concrete. Joe Magarac finds the people and his heart is an apple, shiny and sweet and swollen.
They don’t see him at first; they’re typing on strange, silent typewriters in a big building without any windows. The building looks like a headstone. The people look like birthdates, death dates, already done and over. Born in the Brightness. Died in the Grey. Before and after and always.
Let’s make something, Joe says. Let’s go back to the town and clean it all up and make something. But the people don’t even look up from their typing.
Oh, Joe Magarac, they say. Making things is so last century. Why have you come back? We thought you had gone and weren’t coming home.
Joe doesn’t tell them the heart is a magnet that draws every man back home in the end. Even a man ten feet tall and made of steel. He doesn’t tell them that, because it isn’t true. His heart is an apple, rotten, all eaten away. He leaves the people behind and trudges back to the steel mill, his head heavy and hard and sad. His strong hands are useless, his sturdy legs pointless; his bull neck and plank shoulders might as well be in a museum: high up and shelved out of reach.
So Joe Magarac unmakes himself at last. He fires up the furnace, climbs inside and melts himself down, under, through, until all his uses float to the surface, and then finally burn away for good.